Three Lessons From Stoicism To Deal With Difficult Situations

When somebody comes to me for some kind of advice, unlike others, I don’t prefer to share my thoughts right away. This way I avoid bias in my judgement of the situation. I prefer to take my time and look at the problem in three dimensions. Then I walk around it to let it seep in.

Then I devise a solution. Sleep over it. Make some changes, and then think through all the counter-arguments. If it still stands strong, I share it with the other person. It’s deliberate and time consuming, but effective.

A friend of mine is having some trouble at his workplace. He had come to me for advice. Although I gave the simplest of the advice, this advice can fit into a lot of situations we face in our lives. So I decided to share it here, with his permission of course.

Here’s the gist of what he said:

“I’m not happy where I work. There’s unnecessary bureaucracy. I took this job with a pay cut so that I could do great work. But the whole process is so convoluted here. Too much focus is on optics and ass-kissing. People try to focus on showing that they are getting things done, rather than focussing on getting things done.”

“It doesn’t look good if you don’t stay late in the office, because everybody is staying late. That’s the culture here. I was brought in to solve big problems, and contribute to the business to achieve the vision of the company. But I’m stuck doing micro-level meagre jobs that’s neither helping me in any way, nor giving me any kind of joy. Pure grunt work!”

“The CEO has no vision. The business has no direction. I’ve pitched my ideas, but nothing is moving. I’m stuck in a rut. Everyday has become excruciating. I cannot go on like this.”

If you look at it, it’s not a workplace problem. The setting is in the workplace, yes. But it’s a problem of what you can control, and what you cannot control. Rather than the situation, it’s about your emotional reaction to it.

It’s a problem of how you imagined things to be, and how they are in reality.

Reality is often different from your mental image. It’s not always easy to deal with. No matter how smart or how cautious you are, reality always finds a way to hit you in the head with a brick.

The sooner you beat it to the ground, the sooner you would get rid of anxiety and negative emotions. This applies to all kinds of problems, not work problems.

Here are three stoic ways to deal with reality. I call it the “Stoic Lemonade,” and this is exactly what you need when life gives you lemons.

1. Look at Things Objectively

As easy as it sounds, we almost never do that. We focus on our reactions instead.

One thing you have to wrap your head around is that the world doesn’t revolve around you. As much as it may feel so, it’s not the case. Reality is not a cassette that plays in your head. Reality is out there, and reality doesn’t care about you.

When something bad happens, don’t think about how it makes you feel. Separate your emotions from it. Try to look at it objectively. Try to understand the forces at play.

If somebody has done something that made you sad or angry, try to get into the crux of the matter. Try to understand why. Also, remember Hanlon’s Razor. The world isn’t out to get to you.

You slipped and fell due to lack of friction, not because of your bad luck. You didn’t get the job because they found someone better. Not because you were a bad candidate.

But these things do make us sad. Passed over for promotion, failing to crack an interview, etc. If something makes you sad, give yourself time to get upset. Your reaction is natural. It’s natural to get angry, sad, lonely, or anxious. When bad things happen, you cannot be rational.

Engage your System 1 and do all it takes to vent out and bitch about your situation. Have somebody listen to you. Someone who would lend their ear, and console you.

But you cannot do this all the time, day-in-day-out. The ultimate goal is to deal with it. You have to engage your System 2 at some point, and start looking at things as they are, not as they appear to you.

The stoic way would be to try falsification. Do a root-cause analysis, and get to the bottom of things. While you do that, keep yourself, your thoughts, and your emotions out of the equation.

2. Control What You Can Control

As bad as it sounds, all is not in your control. A lot of times, what you think is in your control is not in your control as well.

A major cause of our misery is that we often try to control what is out of our control. This only leads to anxiety and sadness. Nothing good can come out of it.

The behaviour of your boss is not in your control. The company policy or the nation’s economic policy is not in your control. The stock market is in nobody’s control.

We bemoan and get upset over things we cannot do anything about. One bad day at the office might make you feel miserable. It may give the impression that your whole life is going to be miserable. This is prospection, and it’s a good recipe to make yourself miserable in your thoughts.

As Seneca has said, “There are more things likely to frighten us than there are to crush us. We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” We all have a tendency to stretch a situation to infinity and imagine a bleak future. Engage your System 2, and stop doing that.

Rather than getting upset over what you cannot control, focus on what you can control. Devise a strategy to deal with the situation.

If your boss insults you in public, you cannot control their behaviour. What you can do is talk to them in private, take it to the HR, or jump them in an alleyway. It’s up to you. If you think you need to get better at what you do so that you don’t give anybody any reason to rebuke you, then go do it. That’s the strategy!

It sounds very simple when you read it. But most of the time we don’t try to find ways to deal with a situation. Instead we engage in calling names, cursing the world, and blaming our fate.

If you don’t believe me, try going on for a full week without blaming or cursing anybody. It’s tough! Try to maintain a streak. Every time you fail, start over. Do it for a week.

If you can do it for 7 days straight, it’ll change your perspective about problems completely. You’ll start focussing on solutions more than “blames”.

You’ll focus more on what you can control: your reaction and your strategy. You’ll start relying more upon your System 2. That’s the crux of both Buddhist and Stoic teachings.

3. Exploit Negative Situations

This is not only the last and the final step. It’s the ultimate step, and it’s what is the most hard to master as well.

“The characteristic feature of the loser is to bemoan, in general terms, mankind’s flaws, biases, contradictions, and irrationality—without exploiting them for fun and profit.”

— Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes

You know the typical characteristics of your boss, your colleagues, or your neighbour. My question is, rather than grumbling about it, why don’t you exploit it?

This frame of mind completely changes the nature of the game. It makes you go on offence instead of playing defence. Now your goal is not only to bypass what you don’t like i.e. avoid having a downside, but also to benefit from it. The question you have to ask is: “How do I exploit my fate, others’ bad behaviour, negative culture, etc. for my benefit?”

If you know the policy of your company so well, focus on finding a flaw and exploiting it. No system is without flaw. You think your boss only understands the language of profit and loss? You think he’s someone who doesn’t care about innovation? Then tweak your voice and tone, and propose them everything in their language. If you want to be heard, change your pitch. If you feel your colleague only respects strong men, pretend to be strong-minded. Be charismatic. Show them who’s the boss.

You might say, but that’s not who I am. To this I say, how do you know who you are? “That’s not who I am” is a classic defence mechanism we all apply when faced with a tough (social) situation. If you are comfortable being you, if you have satisfied your inner scorecard, then all this shouldn’t bother you. It’s better to pretend to be somebody else for fun, respect, and profit. Either that, or you leave the game. It’s upto you.

If you feel that you are correct, and all should adjust their behaviour, you are being delusional. To be able to change behaviour, you have to be in a position to influence behaviour. If you aren’t there yet, you’ve got work to do.

To influence, you have to persuade. To persuade, you have to empathise. To empathise, you have to know. And to know, you have to observe things objectively.

If you aren’t at the top, and you aren’t setting the rules, you gotta play these games. It helps being flexible. Otherwise, you are someone who bemoans other’s natures and flaws, instead of doing something about it.

If you take the high moral ground, and tell yourself that it’s not your game to play, it’s fair. But make sure you don’t go out looking for a shoulder to cry on every time things go wrong. And, things will go wrong more than often.

People who don’t look for solutions go nowhere. There are those who fight to win, and there are those who give excuses. Choose your side!

Before I end, here’s some wisdom from the philosopher Rocky Balboa:

“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life.”

“But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”

“Now if you know what you’re worth then go out and get what you’re worth. But you gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody!”

“Cowards do that and that ain’t you! You’re better than that!”
Show Comments